Thousands of toxic waste sites exist in the U.S as a consequence of improper waste disposal, resulting in the pollution and poisoning of lands for years to come.
These heavily contaminated sites can include abandoned mines, industrial sites, landfills, waste dumps, and more.
During the 1970s, infamous toxic dump sites such as Love Canal and The Valley of the Drums reached the public consciousness with disastrous stories of nearby residents experiencing birth defects, chemical burns, and extremely high cancer rates.
Something had to be done to solve this frightening issue. As public pressure grew, the government responded to demands for cleanup and access to healthy and livable environments by establishing what is now colloquially known as “Superfund sites”.
What are Superfund Sites?
“Superfund” is an informal name for the US Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA).
The CERCLA granted the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversight in rehabilitating the most contaminated lands in the US (also known as “Superfund Sites”). The act also forced polluters to be held financially accountable for their actions.
The parties responsible for contamination of sites, most often corporate entities, are required to pay for the cleanup. If the EPA is unable to find or hold a responsible party accountable, they must fund the cleanup efforts instead.
However, it is important to recognize that not all toxic sites reach the thresholds set for Superfund consideration. Sites are only granted Superfund status if they are the worst of the worst.
Further restrictions on EPA funding in the past few years have served as additional obstacles to achieving sustained cleanup progress.
In short: “Superfund Sites” are heavily polluted and contaminated sites in the US (for example, abandoned mines, toxic waste dumps, and factories). The EPA is given jurisdiction to restore and rehabilitate these sites at the expense of the original polluters.
How do Superfund Sites Affect Human Health?
Those living in close proximity to toxic waste sites experience serious health issues that can include higher rates of cancer, respiratory health issues, birth defects, and stunted development.
The effects on children are especially dire, and higher rates of exposure (i.e playing outside) can lead to disastrous consequences for their physical and mental development.
Research has found connections between behavioral issues and exposure to toxic chemicals in children, contributing to poorer performance in school. These health effects can make people more susceptible to deadly illnesses down the line.
With an ongoing global respiratory pandemic, it is especially important to consider the health and well-being of those harmed by toxic waste.
Superfund Sites and Environmental Justice
Comprehensive discussions surrounding the environment and health must include race and class.
According to the EPA, approximately 15 million people live within 1 mile of a designated Superfund site. Many of these communities are low-income and marginalized communities of color. In addition to existing economic hardships, research has shown that further economic decline occurs as a result of the negative associations surrounding a neighborhood’s proximity to a Superfund site.
Sinking these communities further into poverty worsens their situations and health. The overwhelming majority of residents do not have the means to relocate on their own, and thus become trapped in their toxic homes.
Take for example the black residents of Gordon Plaza, a residential subdivision resting on top of the Agriculture St. Landfill in New Orleans, LA that was designated a Superfund site in the 1990s. Back in the 1970s, sand was dumped on the landfill and residential subdivisions were built on top of it. This information was not disclosed to prospective homeowners at the time.
Chasing the American Dream, people eagerly began moving in, with goals to establish families and community. Eventually, residents began to realize something was horribly wrong, as neighbors and families were struck by health issues of frighteningly enormous proportions.
Fast forward to today, the residents of Gordon Plaza are still reporting high rates of cancer and fighting for relocation. Many cite racial discrimination as a reason for why after decades, these residents have been largely forgotten.
What to Do?
So how do we make this right? How do we help communities disproportionately affected and what do you do with a contaminated piece of land that people are afraid to be near?
First, we must demand fully funded government relocation and some form of restitution for those trapped living near or on a Superfund site.
Then advocate for transforming the space into a publicly funded solar or wind energy farm.
Alternative Energy Benefits
Unlike fossil fuels, renewable energy will never run out because it relies on sustainable sources including, but not limited to sunlight, wind, and biomass.
Alternative energy production is safer, and by switching over we can avoid the environmental disasters associated with nonrenewable sources. This also leads to diminishing the hazardous conditions workers in the energy sector are exposed to.
Although renewables have larger upfront costs, they save money in the long run and can stimulate local economic growth by creating safer jobs. Renewables are far more sustainable than fossil fuels and have a much smaller carbon footprint.
Why a Public Good?
Alternative energy is still at the beginning stages of its establishment as an industry. There are many environmental, human health, and community benefits associated with our inevitable adoption of renewables.
However, to maximize the benefit for people and the environment, the industry must be shaped in a way that helps communities rather than exploiting them. That is where publicly funded solar and wind farms come in.
With more oversight, workers at renewable energy farms established on Superfund sites can be ensured fair compensation and safe work conditions. Monopolies on energy can be prevented, thus securing an affordable and sustainable energy source for surrounding communities.
Energy is a utility, a requirement to live in this day and age, and therefore should not be exploited to generate corporate profit. Corporations were largely responsible for the toxicity of Superfund sites in the first place, and rewarding them down the line is unfair to the negatively affected communities.
Instead, energy generated from the Superfund energy farms should be distributed amongst local communities and empower residents, no matter their economic status, in their quest to divest from fossil fuels.
It is important to note that public goods can still be corrupted, and this must be prevented for communities to avoid exploitation at the hands of the government. Reform is necessary for cities and municipalities with struggling and outdated utility management.
Restitution for Residents
Residents poisoned by Superfund sites deserve fully funded relocation and effective community restoration. They have suffered more than enough, and do not deserve one more minute of it.
Money generated from Superfund energy farms could help fund future relocation efforts and community health and environment initiatives. To begin making up for the permanent harm done to their health, affected communities should be granted energy subsidies to diminish household utility expenses.
The reuse of Superfund sites as alternative energy farms could have huge benefits for the environment and public health. Communities affected by Superfund sites deserve restitution for being unknowingly and unwillingly exposed to toxic chemicals. Meanwhile, outside communities benefit from the increased establishment of renewable energy and its assistance in mitigating climate change and other harmful impacts on our environment. They can support adopting community-led renewable energy models and advocate for their own solar or wind farms. The resulting fragmentation and diversification of energy sources empower communities by granting them energy security and independence.
How can you help?
Educate yourself! There is always much more to learn about the environment and health.
It is important to remember we live in a big world that is intricately connected. We cannot continue harming the environment and ignoring the detrimental effects our actions have on others.
Get involved, help raise awareness and organize efforts in your own communities!
About the Author: Amber Rowley
Amber enjoys writing about her wide ranging interests, with an emphasis on society and the environment. She has a B.S in Environmental Biology from Tulane University. Follow her on Twitter @amberrowley_
Minow Edits By Hugh